‘Nigeria missed opportunity to present electoral example to Africa’
Former chairman of Campaign for Defence of Human Rights and Campaign for Democracy in Rivers State, Dr. Chris Akani, told KELVIN EBIRI that the annulment of the June 12 election exposed General Babaginda’s weakness and leadership deficit. He expressed the belief that if Nigeria had nurtured her experiment with June 12, which destroyed the primordial myth about the country, Nigeria would have presented an electoral example not only for Africa but for the world. Excerpts:
Was the annulment of the June 12 election a democratic setback for Nigeria?
If Gen. Ibraham Babangida had announced the result, although he said he regretted it, but that is neither here or there, what could we have learnt from the election? One, Nigerians forgot about their primordial attachment and looked at the quality of person that was fronting himself as their leader. Two, Nigerians forgot anything like electoral fraudulency. I am not saying that there was no rigging, but 90 per cent of the election was conducted in a peaceful atmosphere. Even if Bashir Tofa (National Republican Congress – NRC) had gone to the court, it was very clear that Abiola won. Now, if we had continued with that process, you know election is like a culture; when you begin to have a culture, you build it up and over time you perfect it. And before long it becomes a part of you. If it is your culture to wake up every Friday to clean the community hall, your children’s children will continue and will say ‘oh we inherited it from our fathers.’
If we had nurtured that experiment with June 12, which destroyed the myth of primordialism, which brought to the fore the importance of a good leader, which gave Nigerians power to freely elect their people, if we have sustained that from 1993, Nigeria would have presented an electoral example not only for Africa but for the world. But that experiment was truncated because of selfish interest of some people, epitomized in the persons of Sani Abacha, David Mark, Halilu Akilu, Clement Akpamgbo Arthur Nzeribe and Babangida. If Babangida who was so much touted that he was Machiavellian, of course, Babangida was anti-Machiavelli in all his practices, he would have been guided by two factors: the protection of the State and the welfare of the People. Anything other than that is nonsense. So, Babangida would have known that by announcing that result which was unprecedented in the electoral history of Nigeria, he was protecting the interest of the Nigerian State and also protecting the welfare of Nigerians. He truncated that opportunity.
So, we needed a leader that should be guided by the interest of the people. Babangida only wanted his own interest. Remember his confession that he allowed Abacha to have his way because he saved him during the April 1990 coup of Gideon Okar. Such a person cannot be called a leader. His personal interest became paramount over national interest. The lessons of June 12 should teach us that time has come for Nigeria to have a leader with Machiavellian ethics, a leadership with Machiavellian virtue.
If June 12 election was free and fair, why did NRC-controlled states like old Rivers State support the annulment?
Colonialism created a bourgeois class. Unfortunately, that class is economically unproductive, but they want to perpetually hang on to power. So from 1960 till date, either they are there physically or they are there by proxy. The only source of their wealth is politics and for them politics is wealth and wealth is politics. If NRC said they support the annulment, it was in their favour because they lost the election. But what of the national chairman of SDP, Tony Annieh, who supported the annulment? So the Nigerian bourgeois class is an obstacle to our democratic development. And this is why today people jump from one party to another because they are not ideologically grounded.
Has Nigeria learnt anything from June 12?
We have not learnt any lesson. The degeneracy is deep and we are approaching a dead end. This is why the people should rise up. Look at the first and second republics; you had maturity in the national legislative house. Well, people rig normally in election, but it was not as grievous, as we have today. What politicians say is not what they do especially in Nigeria.
As pro-democracy activist, are you elated about the declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day?
Well, I am happy with President Muhammadu Buhari because I have been telling people that May 29th is not Democracy Day. You can also tag it transition or civilian day. It was the day we started our civilian rule after many years of military dictatorship. June 12 was a day Nigerians took a decision to be on the pedestal of democracy. Unfortunately, that decision had to be truncated and we have to go back. The challenge before us is to go back to June 12 and not to be carried away by the songs of primordialism, the songs of ethnic jingoism and religion. That was what June 12 destroyed. If not, how can Abiola a Muslim and Babagana Kingibe, also a Muslim, have a joint ticket, yet Nigerians including Christians voted because of the belief that Abiola could have moved Nigeria forward progressively.
Even other African countries were happy with the choice of Abiola. Some of the democratic benefits from Nigeria would have also accrued to them. Let me give a typical example. From here (Nigeria) to Jamaica will cost you not less than N500,000, because you have to fly from Lagos to London, then from there to Kingston, Jamaica. Abiola was making plans for a direct flight. From Lagos to Kingston is eight hours. If he was the president, that route would have been created and you would have seen trade blossom. Our brothers and sisters there are excited to come Nigeria.
Enormous resources were expended in the transition process that culminated in the annulment of the June 12 election. Will it be out of place to sanction those who derailed the democratic train?
It is presumed that Babangida spent not less than N40 billion on transition to civil rule programmes. A lot of money went down the drain. Today who can call Babangida to order? If we have a leader with Machiavellian virtue, those who had brought this country backward should have been brought to book for justice and Babangida is one of them. Look at David Mark talking about democracy and a time when the votes of the people will count. He was one of the people that destroyed June 12 election and made Nigerians not to reap the benefits of their action on June 12.
How popular was the agitation for actualization of June 12 in the South-South?
It was very popular. The government tried to divide our rank especially when Abiola ran away.
Did Abiola’s escape after the annulment of the election embolden the military and demoralise civil society organisations?
When it was clear that Abiola had won and it was annulled, civil society groups sat down and got a Lagos High Court to swear in Abiola but he said no. He said, “if Allah wants me to be president, Allah will make me.” At this point, people started going back. At that period, some ambassadors from European countries congratulated him. When Abiola ran away, it divided our ranks. Some said that is a typical Yoruba for you. Where is he now? He is no more in the warfront and that dampened the spirit of many people. But because we were ideologically committed to that spirit, we were saying that Abiola is not June 12. June 12 supersedes Abiola. Just that Abiola was the human being we were seeing but the symbolism of June 12 is popular responsibility, popular sovereignty which were demonstrated during the election and these were the spirit we wanted to continue. To also demonstrate that the man was not a serious character, he came and embraced Abacha while some of us were not happy with Abacha. He had believed that Abacha would come and actualise June 12 for him to become president. He had been a long friend of the military right from the reign of Murtala Mohammed. It was the same Abacha that led to his death and stopped his emergence as president.
Why did they stop him?
We discovered that the military were owing him a lot of money. Secondly, that he knew a lot of secrets about them. So their fear was that Abiola’s presidency would lead to some of them being probed. The fact remains that he knew many things about them.
What should Nigeria learn from June 12 experience?
While I commend Buhari, let him also go further to actualizing the spirit of June 12 which is laying down a democratic foundation for Nigeria’s growth and development. And making people to own their government, making people to own their leaders, and making leaders to be accountable to the people. If I elect you and there is a process that I can remove you, it will pave way for popular sovereignty. The votes of Nigerians counted on June 12 and it was easy. But a group of people with primordial interest, even the then Sultan of Sokoto, truncated it.
How did you and other activists get entangled in the June 12 struggle?
By the 1990s, the wind of change was blowing, especially the wind of sovereign national conference. It was like the Arab String. We had funders from outside. It was the era of human rights. It was as if the world was fed up with military dictatorship, and so Nigeria, as a populous country, should not be different. Importantly, Babangida was toying with the political destiny of Nigerians. Apart from his economic programme, Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) started in 1986 to end in 1987. It did not end. Some palliatives which he introduced came after the 1989 anti- SAP riot. He now introduced a transition programme which started in 1990 and did not end until the day he left office. He was appointing and reappointing governors. It was Gani Fawehinmi that first alerted Nigerians that Babangida’s transition programme was leprous in nature because the man had a hidden agenda. He banned people in pretense of banning the old brigade to bring new brigade. He later unbanned them, created two parties NRC and SDP, wrote constitutions for them.
But you see, as he was dribbling, he didn’t know that one day he would dribble himself out of the goal post. Those he banned were asked not to contest again. It was within this scenario that a man called Moshood Abiola and Alhaji Bashire Tofa emerged. For us in the human rights community, we were very wary about the efficacy of the June 12 election. We were wary because Wole Soyinka said if you are eating with the devil you ought to hold a long spoon. Well, people resolved that whether the election was good or bad, let him (Babangida) do what he wants to do and go. It was on that argument that the idea of synergy came. Politicians, who felt that their political destiny or future had been dented, were not happy and wanted a way to remove the military. So they came in the form of NADECO and they formed a synergy with us. The civil society also formed another synergy called Campaign for Democracy (CD). It was an amalgamation of civil society groups. I was the chairman of CD and Committee for Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) in Rivers State. Since NADECO came and asked our leaders to work with them, I must say they brought money and created the propaganda forum.
To the outside world, it was like a united front for the June 12 election. While we were not in support of Abiola, but between him and Tofa, it was a matter of the devil you know and the angel you do not know. Abiola, a Yoruba man was accessible to our leaders like Gani, Beko Ransome-Kuti; we were also very close to the military. Tofa was like ultra-elitist politician. We had a meeting in Benin City before the election. After the meeting, we paid a courtesy call to late Anthony Enahoro who was then the coordinator of Movement for National Reformation (MNR). Our discussion centred on the applicability of the election.
Why did you describe Babangida a weak leader?
As the election results were being announced by Professor Humphrey Nwosu, a section of the Nigerian Army was not happy. Abacha was not happy. David Mark, the former Senate president, was not happy. Haliru Akilu and Clement Akpamgbo were not happy. Arthur Nzerible was not happy. Although, Nzeribe’s annoyance was that he was among the people that contested and Babangida had to proscribe them and he formed what he called Association for Better Nigeria. On the eve of the election, they filed a suit at a High Court to stop the election. But the Electoral Act says that the court does not have any effect on the election. In spite of that judgment, people voted the next day. When these people (the military cabal) met, they called Nwosu to suspend the election. Abacha said if Abiola becomes president, he would not respect him. I spoke with Prof. Nwosu and he told me this: Babangida is weak, confused. Even though Nwosu did not tell me that he was beaten, from the way he was talking you could see that either he must have been detained or harshly spoken to by Abacha who never wanted Abiola. They wanted Babangida to go on. So June 12 election was annulled on June 23, 1993.
Do you perceive Buhari’s declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day as an act of commitment to democratic ethos or was it informed by populist consideration?
I won’t say it was to appease the Yoruba; it was a populist action to gather support for the election. It is the duty of every political party to do everything during electioneering campaign to gather votes and that is why we say in political science that election is the marketplace of politics. With that he had gotten the mind of majority people. As a human rights activist, I am happy that our struggles did not go in vain. We had predicted it that the declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day will become a reality. We didn’t know that somebody like Buhari would come to actualise this. Though Lagos State House of Assembly had legislated that June 12 was Democracy Day, some of us, including my Institute of Academic Freedom (IAF) tried to organise a series of lectures to keep June 12 in the fore of national consciousness.
Gradually the zeal was dying until the APC saw it as a way to build solidarity and it has worked. Having done this, they should lay down the foundation of a democratic order where the votes of the people count, where leaders will emerge from a transparent election. Remember that election is not only on that day we are voting. The pre-election preparation, the election proper and the post-election which include the announcement are all part of the election, which is only part of the struggle for power which is politics. No country in the world can be seen to be at the apogee of democracy. We are all struggling for the ideal.
Therefore, June 12 should be our foundation. But unfortunately I must sound negative here. The crop of bourgeois class we have in Nigeria are not ready for that commitment, the sacrifice. They are only ready for the plums of political office and this is the tragedy. And that is why I say there should be Nigerian Spring. Nigerians should take their destiny in their own hands and rise and say enough is enough. The tree of liberty is watered by the blood of patriots. Nigerians must demand their rights, that when we vote, that vote should be the result of our action and not the result of what took place in one hotel or the other. That is the only way we can solidify, rejuvenate and incubate a new June 12 that will make Nigeria truly the giant of Africa, politically and economically.
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